Gloss not Guts – Philharmonia/Kreizberg 30 June

Carnival – Overture, Op.92
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Vadim Repin (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreizberg

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 June, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Back in September when I reviewed the opening concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s season, it was becoming clear that the events of ’September 11’ were going to play havoc with concerts. Little did I expect that similar problems might beset the very last RFH concert of this season.

At least in this case, with Neeme Järvi withdrawing from all but his regular commitments with his Detroit, Gothenburg and Japanese orchestras after a recent health scare, the Philharmonia had plenty of time to look for a replacement. Thus Yakov Kreizberg, scheduled originally to be conducting the Sydney SO, became available, rapier baton in hand, to whisk us through this popular programme, Dvorak’s Carnival Overture replacing Tchaikovsky’s Snow Maiden suite.

The Dvorak epitomised the concert – very well played but with a sheen of virtuosity replacing any real engagement with the music. Compared to Tchaikovsky, Dvorak may have been one of the most emotionally stable of composers, but even in this irrepressibly buoyant overture there are some moments of repose. The way the music melts into the second theme for example – yes, there is a constant chugging accompaniment, but it need not necessarily overshadow the poignant lyricism. The clarinet, violin and cor anglais solos that form the central section – as in some hazy, nostalgic reverie – could have been much more relaxed too.

So too the Tchaikovsky – both scores (like the Dvorak) Kreizberg conducted from memory. Vadim Repin fared better than his Proms performance last year – there was no broken string, and there is no doubt that he is one of the most spectacular violinists around. But no emotional depths were plumbed in this performance. Admittedly Kreizberg was more aware of the poignancy of the slow movement, but there was a touch of the autopilot.

Ten years separate the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony; if the former was hard won on the concert platform (the original dedicatee eventually and, you surmise, begrudgingly recognising the concerto’s value), the latter was – like its immediate predecessor and successor – hard won on the manuscript paper: all three the product of the emotional maelstrom that was Tchaikovsky’s life. Fate – in the Fifth Symphony the motto theme announced at the outset on the clarinets – is ever present, as Tchaikovsky wrestled internally with his homosexuality, failed marriage and the strain of work. All of this can be heard in the last three symphonies – if you let it. I’m not advocating the extreme emotional “involvement” of a Bernstein performance, but simply some recognition that there is more to the notes on the page than virtuosity. That’s what we got in Kreizberg’s very well played and brilliant performance. The slow movement fared best (fantastic horn playing in that all-important solo), but the rest approached an all-too-insistent, rather hectic and hectoring voice. The audience loved it, and once in a while it is good to hear this symphony played for all it is worth; but the real riches are found by digging deeper.

Rozhdestvensky’s (so I hear, almost unrehearsed) performance with the LPO back in January, still exciting and on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff, got much closer to the truth of the matter. Kreizberg was just a surface wash.

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